Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s startling statement on June 3 questioning the seeming desire of Hindutva supporters to search for Shivlings under every mosque has set off a wave of speculation.

Some people rushed to welcome Bhagwat’s remarks, which alluded to the standoff at the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, where a court-appointed surveyor reported that an oval object had been found in the tank of the Muslim place of worship. Hindu petitioners claimed it is a Shivling, a symbolic representation of Shiva. Muslims, however, say that the object is actually a fountain.

However, sceptics are wondering about the real intention of Bhagwat’s statement, coming at a time when Hindutva fronts are leading a heated campaign to dig up the graves of history to lay claim to Muslim monuments they claim were built on the ruins of destroyed Hindu structures.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is often known to hint at the direction of its plans and future campaigns. These hints are never aimed at derailing Hindutva campaign.

Bhagwat’s assertion did not outwardly seem to conform to this tradition. In fact, he appeared to detach the Sangh from all attempts to lay claim to mosques.

Given the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s style of functioning and its unambiguous non-secular disposition, taking Bhagwat’s statement at face value might prove to be a naive misjudgement.

It could just be the next logical point of action to what he has reiterated over the past few years, including last year at an event organised by the Global Strategic Policy Foundation in Pune. Bhagwat had emphasised the “oneness” of Hindus and Muslims by invoking their “common ancestry”. This was a huge departure from the second Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief MS Golwalkar’s views of Indian Muslims as second-class citizens.

What, then, is behind the Sangh’s seeming new empathy for Muslims?

To believe this is a genuine change of heart, is to give the Sangh the undeserved benefit of the doubt, given its distinct 100-year Islamophobic trajectory. To believe that the Sangh is shedding its antipathy towards Muslims would be to believe that is the organisation has set out to negate everything that it has worked for all these decades.

Long-term goals

Why, then, this apparent softening of stand?

One plausible reason could be that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has not changed its goal – but only the way to get there. The first major goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu nation. But however far it might go in that direction, the significant size of India’s Muslim population – just over 14% – will always pose a challenge to the achievement of this goal.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh knows too well that the hasty establishment of a de jure Hindu nation is fraught with danger. Not only could it lead to violence within the country, it will also invite huge international backlash. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh understands that it can achieve its objectives only from a position of strength.

“Non-violence is fine but the world doesn’t listen to the weak,” is something Bhagwat reiterates in his important speeches. “The world doesn’t even listen to your wisdom if you are weak.”

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh does not want any hurdles, external or internal, on the path of its objectives. It has probably realised that the surging Islamophobia could prematurely puncture the entire Hindu Rashtra project. That is why the Sangh may have decided to say things that sound like music to its critics in general and Muslims in particular.

History of course corrections

History is replete with instances of how the Sangh has changed tack, but not track. It was fiercely critical of BR Ambedkar at the time he was drafting the Indian Constitution. Over the past few years, however, it has appropriated Ambedkar as one of its revered icons.

More relevant to the matter at hand is Balasaheb Deoras, the third Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, who had categorically stated that only one born to Hindu parents can be considered a Hindu.

The way Bhagwat has been defining the Hindu is a far cry from Deoras’s position on the subject. Bhagwat has said that everyone living in India is a Hindu, no matter if they practice Islam, Christianity or any other faith.

The fact that the Sangh, under Bhagwat’s leadership, has consciously edited out uncomfortable and offending references to Muslims from Golwalkar’s book, Bunch of Thoughts, is a telling landmark in the paramilitary organisation’s history of tactical ideological course corrections.

But the long-term objectives of achieving a Hindu Rashtra, Akhand Bharat and the dream of making India a vishwaguru, or world leader, has remained unchanged. Make no mistake: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will never abandon its ultimate goals, unless, of course, Bhagwat is out to sabotage them all – something nobody believes is possible.

Transforming India into a superpower and then enforcing ideas to their logical end appears to be the Sangh’s strategy, under a liberal camouflage. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has realised, particularly after its political wing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power, that it is not possible to attack Muslims and yet achieve the goal of a Hindu nation.

BJP’s overzealous saboteurs

It is quite possible that the Sangh may already have sensed the trouble brewing in the Islamic world about the rising attacks on Indian Muslims, and Bhagwat was quick to adopt a seemingly liberal posture.

Another danger that the Sangh might well have sensed is the frequent bad press the Narendra Modi-led government gets in the Western world. The continuous downrating of India on core democratic markers might attract closer scrutiny of the BJP regime under Modi and, in turn, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from where the BJP draws its ideological and cadre strengths.

The Sangh runs its international projects through the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, whose activities might attract attention from foreign governments that might prove uncomfortable.

It cannot be ruled out that the Sangh might actually be seeing the BJP’s overzealous foot soldiers as causing damage to the organisation’s long-term goals. It might have begun realising that rushing indiscreetly through the Hindutva project could actually derail it.

Violence over now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma's disparaging remarks against Prophet Muhammad, in Kanpur on June 3. Credit: PTI

Also, what most observers did not notice in Bhagwat’s speech last week was his statement about “willing Muslims” would be welcomed “back” into the Hindu fold. The Sangh chief added that those who did not want to “return” could continue to follow their way of worship.

When seen in conjunction with the refrain about Hindus and Muslims having a common ancestry, perhaps the Sangh’s new focus could be to convert as many Muslims to Hinduism as possible.

Once the Sangh gets all of India’s power centres under its control, getting Muslims to submit to the inevitability of Hindu Rashtra will be a given. Donning the hat of seeming liberalism and putting the black Sanghi cap aside for some time is a small price to pay for taking the Hindutva project to fruition.

Unlike some Hindutva votaries and BJP supporters, the Sangh is in no tearing hurry. In his speech, Bhagwat appeared to have been rocking the BJP’s boat – but he was only trying to protect the Sangh’s own giant battleship.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.